Shock Flicks: Martyrs


Shock flicks is a new ongoing editorial segment that exists to examine films from the horror genre, both past and present that are not aimed at pleasing a mass audience.  The films selected for this editorial will include movies that attempt to be extremely shocking to the viewer and often times creating discomfort at the highest level by including extreme violence/sex/gore and taboo subjects in order to shock the viewer for either relevant artistic purposes or on the other end of the spectrum, just for the hell of it.  For the newest installment of Shock Flicks, I give you a brutal and unrelenting film from France called Martyrs (Dir: Pascal Laugier)

Synopsis:  (From A young woman's quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child leads her and a friend, who is also a victim of child abuse, on a terrifying journey into a living hell of depravity.

Shock Hook:  When Martyrs debuted at the Cannes film festival in May of 2008, word quickly spread about the project ranging from abject disgust to unending praise.  Critics and viewers saw the film as more than just a gore film, but at the same time it was still completely inescapable to mention Martyrs without referencing the previous years’ extreme French horror films Inside and Frontier(s).  Martyrs was the newest film in a sequence of insane French New Horror cinema that not only set the bar for all other modern gore films to be measured, but also stretched the boundaries of taste while somehow showing the viewer a true art film.

Shock Value: 9 – I’ll just get right down to it: This movie is intense.  I’ve seen a ton of horror films in my day and this is in the running for the most insane, gory, depressing, soul crushing, and shocking film I’ve ever seen.  From the opening scene of a seemingly happy family getting gunned down in their home by a psychotic female teenager to the entire third act of nothing but torture, the only movie that compares to it is Salo, and if you know anything at all about Salo, that comment would act as either a must see recommendation or something you are going to avoid forever. 

Cinematic Relevance:  I mention Salo in reference to Martyrs because they share a common theme as a means to reach completely separate goals.  One element they do have in common is that they both deal with the absolute degradation of the human condition, both physically and mentally.  However, the antagonists in Salo come off as complete sadists because their end game really has no purpose.  They torture and degrade others simply because they want to and because they can.  In Martyrs however, the torture and destruction of one human being is a way to reach some sort of spiritual enlightenment by actually hearing the word of god from someone who is completely resigned to their death and inevitable passage to the afterlife.  It’s that purpose that differentiates Salo from Martyrs in terms of gore and cinematic relevance.  Does that make Martyrs the better film?  I don’t think it does, but that doesn’t mean that it’s just a snuff film either.

Overall Quality:  The film is good, but at times I felt that it was a bit inflated and in a sense overtly pessimistic beyond any kind of reasonable understanding.  The film has a three act structure of which all of the acts differentiate themselves to the point where you could easily have made three completely different films from them.  In the third act, our main character Anna is tortured.  I’m not talking about tied down against her will for a little bit here: she is brutally beaten, has her head shaved, force fed gruel, and locked in chains for what seems like way too long to be portrayed on screen.  Then again, that is exactly the point of the third act. 

The reason Anna is being tortured to these means is to have her reach a near death experience and relay to a group of people what the after life is like.  Before that can happen though, Anna has to have her spirit completely broken and we as the audience need to see that.  Just like the plight that Anna is on, we the viewer have to be completely resigned to the fact that no one is coming to help her.  There isn’t going to be an impossible last second escape, and somewhere around the 20 minute mark of a brutal (I can’t overstate that term) torturing sequence as a viewer you resides to this fact.  It’s hard to accept because as a viewer you want to see the protagonist become free again, and possibly even over throw her captors, but that isn’t happening here. 

The film doesn’t exist to make you feel good, it exists for you the viewer to experience some personal reflection on what you believe.  Does Martyrs do that successfully?  I would say that yes it does, but only to the point where it elicits a response from the viewer.  If you still have any semblance of a soul, the movie will affect you at some level.  I had a very similar feeling when I originally watched Requiem for a Dream.  I didn’t enjoy Requiem for a Dream insofar as a piece of entertainment that I feel I must often revisit, but I quickly realized that it definitely wasn’t a waste of my time.  I was a bit down in the dumps at the end of Requiem because when the end credits rolled, nothing was resolved and at the same time every single character was worse off than when we met them.  It was only later on that I realized that Martyrs gave me the same effect.  It’s a hard film to watch and process with no redeeming character outcomes.  But then again, that’s the entire point.

Staying Power: Martyrs will stay with us for a long time, if not for its inherent message of salvation peppered with a healthy dose of helplessness and pessimistic, but also because it will remain a rite of passage for the diehard horror fan.  It’s not a film that is pleasurable to watch, but your willingness to just sit through and absorb everything that the movie throws at you earns you a badge of honor.  It’s brutal, intense, and definitely not directed at a mass audience, then again, all of the great films aren’t.

NOTE: I’m always going to be looking for new editions to this column so if you have any films that you think fit into this category along with August Underground’s Mordum, Salo, or Cannibal Holocaust then PM me or drop it in the comments!

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